Hedges vs. Hitchens

Apparently there was an atheism vs. God debate between Chris Hedges and Christopher Hitchens last week. Hedges took a liberal Christian view, while Hitchens took the crusading Islamophobic atheist position.

It doesn’t sound like it was all that illuminating, however. Perhaps it’s selective reporting that reduces participants to stereotypes. Nevertheless, in the story, Hedges and Hitchens both seem to represent classic forms of boneheadedness. Hedges comes across as woolly-headed liberal religionist who uses supernatural language but has difficulty extracting concrete claims from a soup of metaphors, metaphysics, and exalted feelings. Hitchens, on the other hand, appears in the role of professional asshole: a mirror image of a fundamentalist religious stereotype both in pugnacious attitude and dogmatic certainty.

I’ll take the easy way out and blame the mass media once again. As always, they’re interested in spectacle above all. So even if it may feel good at first to have some atheists rise to public prominence, it gives me pause to see that leading the pack are Sam Harris and now Christopher Hitchens, and that the media may like them precisely because they easily fit the image of sharp-tongued bigotry that atheism is supposed to display. Some in the nonbelieving choir may applaud the opportunity for public venting, but I suspect that overall the effect of Harris, Hitchens etc. on most religious people is comforting. They just reinforce the prejudice that nonbelief is a shallow, reactive stance, and that moderate religiosity remains unchallenged as the pinnacle of thoughtful respectability.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15549651633279033502 Adam

    I think you’re 100% right on this. I think debates like this do a disservice to atheists in the US.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14271127522458529063 fatalis

    Oh, come on. Hitchens and Harris are brilliant polemicists and authors. After reading a vapid rant like this I’m actually very inclined to call you yourself boneheaded.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01898478961169607232 MARK

    Personally, I’m getting a little tired of seeing atheists described as “pugnacious,” or “militant,” or “antagonistic,” simply because they refuse to apologise for being critical of religion in general or its fundamentalist radicals in particular. For too long, religionists have gotten a pass by way of special pleading on “matters of faith” while continuing to make ridiculous, unfounded, and often deliberately fraudulent assertions. I’m not at all put off by the assertive atheism of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc., and I could care less whether the MSM or religious liberals take offense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13551684109760430351 Hume’s Ghost

    What annoys the heck out of me about Hitchens is that he operates from the premise that anyone who doesn’t support the “war on terror” the way he does is a “leftist” apologist for Islamic fundamentalism.

    I’m fiercely critical of orthodox Islam, but I can also at the same time consider the geo-political and socio-economic factors that lead to the rise of fundamentalism, and I would like to address the problem by going after both ends of the problem.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03743116454273042629 Sheldon

    I have to say that I am not proud to allegedly have Hitchen’s in my camp. His comments on Falwell were boneheaded. Calling him “a toad” and arguing that he did not really believe what he professed made him look like an ass.

    As an atheist, I don’t neccessarily put my stance on the god question above all else. Hedges has been a great voice against militarism and the move toward theocracy. Hitchens on the other hand is turning out to be awful politically in his support of Middle East interventions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17933545393470431585 Martin Wagner

    Having read both Harris and Hitchens, I don’t see what is so shallow and reactive about their work. Harris, if anything, argues with such beautiful clarity that he is able to demolish his theistic opponents without ever resorting to the kinds of emotionalism or bigotry people (including, it seems, some atheists) like to accuse him of.

    Sorry, but I agree with Mark. Look at what religionists are doing in this country. Non-stop gay bashing. $27 million “museums” to antiscience. Leading us into futile overseas conflicts in the hopes that armageddon and the Rapture are right around the corner. And atheists are supposed to do…what? Make nice with these people? Please! I say it’s high time for us to put our collective feet down and say “Enough is enough!” Why should I have to “respect” rampant irrationalism, particularly that which has demonstrably harmful effects? If speaking out with conviction and passion against delusional beliefs and their consequences to society makes one a “professional asshole,” then I think I’ve just found my new career, thank you very much, Mr. Chamberlain!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03743116454273042629 Sheldon

    Martin,
    I certainly would not criticize Harris on the basis of which I just criticized Hitchens. He doesn’t get on TV and call a dead guy names. Yeah, Falwell was an asshole, and it certainly is legitimate to go on TV and reflect on his negative legacy. I just think one ought to do it with a civil and intelligent manner.

    As for Harris, I used to agree with him on many things. But now I am thinking he really oversimplifies issues with the relationship between what the Koran says and the radical Islamist actions. Several atheist bloggers have wrote on this including I believe Taner Edis here, and the Atheist Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe.

    Another thing I am starting to rethink about Harris is his argument about “liberal believers providing cover for fundamentalists.” The fact of the matter is there are some liberal Christians and other believers who are also in the midst of their own struggles with the Religious Right.
    Chris Hedges is a case in point.
    http://www.amazon.com/American-Fascists-Christian-Right-America/dp/0743284437/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-0749433-1059209?ie=UTF8&s;=books&qid;=1180831087&sr;=8-1
    “Leading us into futile overseas conflicts in the hopes that armageddon….”
    Interestingly enough, it is Hitchens the atheist who is a big supporter of the war in Iraq!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00374029395451457451 D.R.M.

    Harris doesn’t fit nicely in with the secular humanist and rationalistic camp. He supports morally repugnant policies, such as ethnic profiling and torture to serve to “fight terrorism” and has this nasty habit of committing the guilt by association fallacy, by lumping modernists with ultra-fundamentalists.

    He also flirts with Eastern Mysticism.

    Hitchens, despite his anti-Islamofascism, seems perfectly happy with making way for Islamofascism in Iraq by removing secular (dictator) Saddam. That and he seems like an insensitive prick to ridicule someone who just died.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10099905896896905176 GOP Mammal

    Liberal christianity needs to be harshly criticized. Attacking fundamentalist chritianity is great but leaving liberal christianity unscathed is just an invitation for the fundies to sprout from their ranks. Also I’m glad Hitchens and Harris are going after Islam as much as Christianity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    I have mixed feelings on this. Liberal religion is infinitely preferable to fundamentalist religion, and at least liberal religionists are willing to cooperate with secularists (and, more importantly, not try to impose their view upon others.) So I think they shouldn’t be attacked with the venom that ought to be reserved for fundamentalists. Yes, their beliefs are just as irrational as fundamentalists, and yes, the fallacies in their belief ought to be exposed. But as Adam and Sheldon have said, at present Hitchens and company do reinforce the atheist community as judgmental and self-important.


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